Find Your Sweet Spot–and Stay There

A young woman I know is a star. In her early thirties, she had an M.B.A. and was already running a small division of a successful fashion company. She had that rare combination of design sense and business savvy that makes a virtuoso fashion executive.

The owner of her company noticed. And when the company’s president left, the owner tapped my friend for the job.

She had her doubts. In the job, she would be more disconnected from the design work she loved and she would be focused far more on finances and doing deals. More than anything, she would have to manage the owner who was temperamental. That wasn’t really her forte or interest.

On the other hand, what an opportunity! And honor! It would look amazing on her résumé, the money was great, and to be president at this young age? How could she turn it down?

So she took the job.

The first few months were grueling, but she expected that. What she didn’t expect is that it wouldn’t get better. She mastered the finances – and even enjoyed that part – but the politics of her relationship with the owner were sapping her energy. Things began to slip through the cracks. The designs began to sell less well. And the owner was becoming increasingly tense and erratic.

Within a few years, she left the job and the company.

If you think about it, the entire outcome was predictable.

We all have a sweet spot where everything seems to flow; where we feel happy, competent, in sync with everything around us, uniquely talented, and predictably successful. It feels like magic, but it’s not: It’s the intersection of our strengths, weaknesses, passions, and differences.

My friend, in taking the job, veered from her sweet spot.

The scenario is not uncommon. Of more than 10,000 people who have taken a productivity quiz on my website, a full 72% admit to doing work they neither excel at nor enjoy.

That’s a mistake. We should plan our work and our lives so that we operate in that intersection. Outside it? Chances are we’ll fail. We might succeed at first, but it won’t be sustainable.

So why do we ever leave our sweet spot? Sometimes, it’s because we want to learn. One of the reasons my friend took the position was to get experience running her own business.

But there’s another temptation at play: ego. A new job sounds impressive and the external rewards and recognition are significant, so we think we should take it, even when we might know in our gut it’s not the right fit.

A few years ago, I was asked to sit on the board of a non-profit. I was honored and I accepted. After a few meetings though, my enthusiasm started to wane. I liked the organization and I liked the people on the board, but I didn’t care enough to devote real time to it. It wasn’t something I was passionate enough about and it required that I be a strong fundraiser, definitely a weakness of mine. In other words, it failed two out of four of my sweet spot criteria.

Here’s the crazy thing: A year later, they asked me to be president of the board, and I accepted again. I lasted a year.

So, why did I accept? I’m embarrassed to say that, mostly, I liked the idea of being president of the board, even though the role took me out of my sweet spot.

At first glance, you might think the dilemma of seduction could be solved by being clear about what you want versus what other people what from you. That would be a fairly easy distinction to sort out.

But it’s more complicated than that. In fact, the dilemma is entirely within us: It’s between what we want and what we think we should want, which is hard to distinguish.

Still, in the midst of that complexity, there’s a simple way to assess an opportunity. Next time you’re given an “offer you can’t refuse,” ask yourself if it will place you squarely in your sweet spot. If it won’t, you know what to do.

As for my friend? She eventually started her own company. She works on the designs herself, which she loves, and is very close to the marketing, promotions and finances. And politics? Very little.

The company is successful, of course. She’s in her sweet spot.